She taught me to drive

She taught me to drive, the summer I turned 15 and a half, which is when you could get a learner’s permit in Arizona. My parents tried. My first session, with my mother, ended with mom screaming and trying to grab the steering wheel from the passenger seat, even though I was only driving in circles in a shopping mall parking lot which, due to blue laws, was empty on a Sunday afternoon. The second teaching attempt, by my father, ended with him swearing at me for being hopelessly stupid. I had missed out on driver’s ed. That was offered the previous summer, when everyone else in my class at school had their learner’s permits. I was a year younger, and student-teaching during the week, and so I was on my own that summer for the driving.

Enter Donna, and an easy, graceful, generous offer to teach me to drive. Ten years older than me, the only girl of my five Tucson cousins, Donna was the first woman I had looked up to: tall, legs that went on forever, thick brown hair. And cool. I was not cool. She was a genuine hippie, who smoked and drank and partied and wore hot pants and high heels and tons of eyeliner. Except when she wore cut-off jeans and wild print blouses and went barefoot everywhere in her awesome Navajo and Hopi jewelry. I remember her babysitting me and my sisters one night while my parents were out to dinner. I was maybe eight; Donna was going to a party after my parents got home. The idea of a party that would begin that late was something I knew only from movies and television. I didn’t know anyone who would attend a party like that. Except Donna.

She showed up at our front door on a Saturday morning, dressed in cut-offs and a boho print blouse, and handed me the keys to her four-speed Datsun. I got in the driver’s seat; she explained the clutch and gears. And then she pulled a beer out of the six-pack in the bag on the floor on the passenger side, reclined her seat, flipped her sunglasses off the top of her head, and told me to start driving.

When you’re 15-and-a-half, and as awkward as it is possible to be at that age, your coolness factor goes way up when you’re cruising Tucson on a Saturday morning with your semi-drunk and much more beautiful cousin in the car. The only time she reached over was to honk at cute guys. I know I looked panicked the day that she was seriously willing to pick up a couple of totally built guys unloading a truck. The alcohol left her quite relaxed about my driving errors: left turns I never should have attempted; grinding the gears (“that’s not the best thing for the car, T.”); endless stalls because I would take my foot off the clutch at stop lights (all of the cars in my family were automatics).

Her attitude gave me the confidence that my parents’ panicked criticism couldn’t, and to this day I am a self-assured driver, and grateful that I learned on a manual transmission – never more so than on a business trip to Eastern Europe a few years ago, when a local colleague dangled a set of car keys in front of our group, and said that he couldn’t drive the two hours to our destination, as his license had been suspended. As the other members of our group looked at each other in horror, I took the keys, got in, engaged the clutch, and maneuvered out of the tight parallel parking space. Without stalling.

I was much older before I realized the implications of those beers. And her many car accidents. And the overt and sometimes misplaced sexuality. The arrests. And the stays at Betty Ford, Steps, and every other decent rehab place that existed at the time. And finally, her descent into a long illness that left her dead, far too young.

And I was far too young to understand some of the things she said to me. That there are things that happen to a person that cannot be undone. That people take things, as if they are on loan, things that can’t be returned.

I get it now, Donna. And I still look up to you. For your boldness and your spirit. I don’t know if I ever thanked you properly for teaching me to drive, but I am so very grateful. (I wish you could have seen me coming off the mesa in Telluride in the rain. You would have been so proud. The other people in the car said I had nerves of steel.) I remember you often.

Always, and most particularly, when I engage the clutch.

Donna Marie Sivilli 1949-2011

© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved.







Amazing Grace

Two weekends ago I celebrated my friend Abraham’s 50th birthday in Nashville. Family and friends converged on that city from various places around the US. His girlfriend (and now fiancée) Shannon arranged it, and the location was a surprise for him. I’d never been to Nashville before; I’ve only driven around it on my way to other places.

It turned out to be the weekend when I discovered that I know nothing about the country in which I was born and raised.

I have had hints of this before: stopping for gas in Wyoming on a cross country trip in 2012, I perused the books for sale in the gas station/Burger King/Subway/convenience store: testimonials about God’s power to turn around the most wretched life; advice for women about how to be a proper Christian wife. Nothing I would be willing to read.

Our Friday night plans were to go to dinner at an Indian fusion restaurant, and then to go to the Grand Ole Opry. We were having a good time at dinner, and Shannon called the Opry to find out if we would be seated if we were late. It turns out this is a much more casual venue than most concert halls, and it’s not a problem to show up late. The first thing that struck me, when we walked in, is that we were listening to music seated in church pews. And I realized that many of the mega-churches in the US have been built on the model of the Opry hall: a semi-circular bank of pews rising from the stage, where the preacher/performer can be seen from any seat in the house.

The second thing I noticed, as I looked around the audience, was color. Not the people. Their color was a given. White. As in Anglo-Saxon white. My olive complexion is the darkest in the house. (I had noticed this earlier. I’m in Tennessee, I’m only four hours from Atlanta, and everyone is white. This is puzzling to me. I know that African-American people live in Tennessee. I just can’t figure out where Nashville is hiding them.) No, the color was in the clothes. This wasn’t an edgy, rock-concert audience where people are dressed in denim and black. Nor a tie-dyed Deadhead audience. It’s white blouses and blue jeans on the women. And peroxide poured on their hair. Denim on the guys. White and blue were the predominant colors as I looked out across the audience, set off against the red seat cushions in the pews.

The Opry was launched on Novembe 28, 1925. There are performances on Friday and Saturday nights, and they are broadcast, live, on WSM 650. The broadcast can be heard in 38 states and parts of Canada, and it is streamed on their website. The Opry is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, and a few other media I don’t even recognize.

One of the first songs we heard was Bubba Garcia. Abraham, an anthropologist by training and a professor of religious studies in Atlanta, leaned over and tapped my shoulder. “This is one for your paper,” he said. I looked at him wordlessly, my mouth open in shock. Thanks to his mother, Elaine, who figured out how to access the archives of Opry shows, I have the lyrics (appended here). I Googled the lyrics, but the ones I found online were nowhere near as offensive to me as they were sung that night. Why not bring back the old Frito Bandito TV ad?

No one outside of our group seems to be offended by this song. I realize this this is a song you can sing only when you are certain you are singing to people who think just like you.
Jonathan Jackson begins an emotive performance, mostly on his knees, with the comment that “some say the Psalms were the first Blues.” He sings “Love Rescue Me” (by U2!) beautifully, but I cannot focus on his lyrics, because I am caught by the cultural appropriation: with his opening, Jackson wiped out the entire connection of the Blues with slaves working Southern fields, and with the spiritualist tradition that fused with African music. One of the people to whom Jackson dedicates the song is Michael Stipe. As we leave the hall, we are concerned. Has something happened to Michael Stipe? A quick search on our phones tells us he is fine. Is this a reference to Stipes’s “Losing My Religion” – now 20 years old – or to his sexual orientation? It’s another thing we can’t quite understand.

This is the United States of America. This is the country that the rest of the world can’t figure out. And now I am truly beginning to understand why.

But there is something else going on. The music is awesome. Bluegrass. Mountain Music. Country Music. Played by artists so skilled they make it look easy, effortless. This is party of my cognitive dissonance. And it contributes to my cognitive dissonance that this music, with its roots in the hills and the plains, the swamps and the rivers, is authentic, the music that is embedded in this land.

There is authenticity, as well, in the appearance of the performers. None of them has had work done. Their faces show age, experience, emotion. Connie Smith lost her lead guitarist the previous week in a fatal automobile accident. Her grief is evident, not only on her face and in her voice, but also, in the black pantsuit she wears. I can’t imagine a Hollywood star allowing herself to be projected onto a Jumbotron looking so genuinely haggard and sad.

At the end of the show Ronnie Milsap sings a song from his new gospel album, the one he will be signing, and “shaking hands and saying howdy-do” in the gift shop after the performance. Ronnie is celebrating his 40th anniversary of being inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, and he is singing about knowing he will walk those streets of gold and he believes it: heaven is a physical place to him. He wears a black shirt, studded with rhinestones and embroidered with bright red flowers.

With my friends, who are white, and African-American, and Asian, and combinations of races, and Christian and Jewish and Buddhist and Muslim, and educated and open-minded and liberal and humanist, I have a forum for discussing the set and setting of this music, for discussing the alienation I am feeling. A framework to talk about the fact that I do not know the country in which I was born and brought up. At the Opry, I realized that I was in the company of the majority of the electorate in this country, the people who hold the values that will elect Donald Trump. So I am happy that I heard this concert, and experienced the Opry, in the company of some of these friends.

I do not respect the outlook of the people sitting in the Opry audience with their cans of beer and processed hair, and the Confederate flags on their cars in the parking lot, laughing hysterically at Bubba Garcia. I do not think that song is cute, or funny. I think Jackson needs to learn some music history. But I realize that these people came by their opinions honestly, if without self-reflection. And I know that if I had lived their lives I might think and act as they do. I do not assume malicious intent on their part (Except in the case of the flags. I can’t see anything but malice in a Confederate flag). I recognize that many of their attitudes are rooted in ignorance and fear and I know how powerfully ignorance drives fear, and how fear closes us in upon ourselves, makes us crave the familiar and fear that which is different.

I wrote most of this sitting in the lobby of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Everyone in line for the ticket office is staring at their phone while they wait in the interminable line. After you get your ticket, you have to stand in another line to get in. This is one thing I will remember about Nashville: the lines. We are in Mecca. And the Hajj goes on year ‘round, even in sub-freezing temperatures.

In this entire complex, there is only one recycling bin. A token, like the one African-American family in the complex that afternoon. Recycling is a symbol of an America that has to husband its resources, to care for the planet, and not exploit it indefinitely. And the America inhabited by the people around me possesses a God-given right to conquer, to subjugate, to live as they wish without regard for consequence. And because these people have accepted Jesus as Lord, they will walk the gold-paved streets of which Milsap sings. Literally.

But in the end, there is the music. Music that we can still feel when we walk this land, rather than pave over it with concrete.

Connie Smith closes the show with Amazing Grace. Vince Gill sits in on guitar. These people are family to each other. The notes of his haunting, heartfelt solo stay with me as I leave the hall.

In the end, as in the beginning, there is the music.

You can check out the lyrics to Bubba Garcia here: Bubba Garcia



© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved.